Review: ‘Gloucester Blue’ at Gloucester Stage Company

By Robert Israel

Lewis D. Wheeler (left) and Robert Walsh in ‘Gloucester Blue’ at Gloucester Stage Company. Photo by Gary Ng.

A professional playwright’s palette has many colors. This is especially true if you’re the prolific Israel Horovitz, now a septuagenarian, who has dabbed his scripts over the decades with many, if not most, of the colors of the rainbow, not only on stage, but in numerous mainstream films as well.

His latest, Gloucester Blue, is a lively, darkly hued two-act play whose glow is generated by the spirited, tragicomic performances of a cast that obviously delights in performing it.

The title refers to a particular blend of paint, a color that Horovitz has relied on in his other plays, specifically those written about his adopted town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This tint took on particular glory in GSC’s September 2009 production of Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother. If you attended that staging, this new play might make you think you’re experiencing déjà vu. There are new characters in Gloucester Blue, but they are cast from the same mold as those in the previous play. And, to add to this air of familiarity, three of the four cast members – Robert Walsh, Francisco Solorzano, and Esme Allen – appeared in the previous production.

Gloucester Blue follows a similar narrative structure. Horovitz introduces two working class stiffs, Latham (Walsh) and Stumpy (Solorzano), who quickly engage in banter that focuses on their Gloucester roots: who do you know, what school did you attend, and so forth. After all, Gloucester, Massachusetts is that kind of place, or at least it used to be. In the 21st century, yuppies have gobbled up properties and turned the real estate into exclusive showplaces. In this fast-and-furious context, Latham and Stumpy are a dying breed. Like the “lumpers” (men who make a day’s wages by hauling and processing large quantities of fish) who populate Sins of the Mother, these two men struggle from pay check to pay check by painting houses. When I grew up, they were called “ham and eggers” — day laborers.

They have nothing in common with the WASPs who live in chunks of such tony North Shore locales as Beverly Farms, Hamilton, and Magnolia. These rich young types are represented by the other two members of the cast, Lexi (Esme Allen) and Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler). Fed from silver spoons, these characters hail from the nearby North Shore horsey-town of Hamilton.

The plot focuses on those that have (Lexi and Bummy) and those that do not (Latham and Stumpy). For those of us living in Massachusetts, the mere mention of local hang-outs is a treat. We know these neighborhoods, we’ve visited them, and we understand the local context. This dependence on familiarity poses a problem when staging a play like this beyond the Commonwealth. The script has been presented in workshop form in Seattle and in Florida, but those audiences probably did not grasp the contrast between the moneyed inhabitants of today and lingering memories of working-class Gloucester. The rough world of the proles has been pushed aside for the sake of a smoother, more gentrified and privileged veneer. The play relies heavily on these contrasts between then and now and succeeds because of them, if you get the drift.

As Latham, Robert Walsh (who also serves as interim artistic director at GSC), wears his salt-of-the-Cod character like a pair of old slippers. He’s acted in three of the playwright’s scripts and directed four since 1991. Walsh makes Latham a convincing conniver. In his hands, the character is adept at manipulating snippets of memorized conversation he’s heard from Stumpy in order to get his own way, and when that doesn’t work Walsh’s Latham has a grin that resembles the Cheshire Cat’s, with a charm that could lure anyone down the Rabbit Hole. He is well matched by Solorzano’s Stumpy. And a hearty round of kudos goes to the alluring and sexually provocative Esme Allen as Lexi and the talented understatement of Lewis D. Wheeler as her preoccupied and lackluster husband.

What ultimately makes this script different from Sins of the Mother is some added comedic strokes, powerful but broad. Gloucester Blue would easily make an amusing graphic comic — the dialogue seems to call out for cartoon balloons, If Horovitz is breaking new ground – and I’m not totally convinced he is – it is in this move into farce. This humor tickles our fancy because the playwright is enjoying expressing the more carefree parts of his imagination.

By all means, take in Gloucester Blue. The play is vibrant, even if its color is too monochromatic. Another coat of something a bit less predictable would have been beneficial.

**

This review previously appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

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